Massachusetts lawmakers to vote on anti-BDS bill after going on free trip to Israel and West Bank settlements

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On December 7, a day after President Trump announced that the U.S. was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, 13 Massachusetts legislators made their way to Israel as fully-subsidized guests of a lobby group, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston.  They were due back on December 17.

They were accompanied by JCRC head Jeremy Burton, who reports on the JCRC website that he has taken a third of the current sitting members of the Massachusetts legislature to Israel during the past six years, and loves being able “to witness as our participants fall in love with the leaders and activists who’ve inspired and energized me for years.”

The impact of the lovefest with Israel will hardly have had time to wear off before three members of the 2017 JCRC delegation are slated to vote on whether the bill against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) drafted and heavily pushed by the JCRC should be given the thumbs up by their State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee and passed to Ways and Means, which is chaired by another member of the current trip. 

The JCRC’s stealth legislation

Over the past year Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Boston, Massachusetts Peace Action (MAPA) and the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine have built a vigorous campaign against the deceptively-named “Act to Prohibit Discrimination in State Contracts.”

On the surface the bill merely underscores legislation already on the books prohibiting discrimination.  To skirt First Amendment boycott protections, it makes no mention of Israel or its real aim: to suppress the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

But that intention became clear enough in the JCRC’s lobbying efforts.  It has urged lawmakers to “stand together” in support of Israel and the bill, and condemn BDS as a form of “national origin discrimination.”

But BDS has nothing to do with national origin discrimination, as delegations from JVP, MAPA and the Alliance explained in meetings with dozens of legislators.  They took with them an Open Letter signed by more than 100 Massachusetts organizations that came together in a Freedom to Boycott Coalition.

Many lawmakers said they were wholly unaware of the real purpose of the bill.  Some who were listed among the 65 or so co-sponsors said they would not have signed on had they known.  Others confessed they had no idea about Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights, and thought BDS was simply about hating Israel. Several stated that they thought JCRC spoke for the entire Jewish community and were surprised to hear that many Jews support BDS.

As JVP’s Jill Charney pointed out in her meetings with legislators, JVP has 5,000 members in Massachusetts who have taken a strong stand in supporting the BDS Campaign. “There are many other Jews, not affiliated with JVP, who condemn the expansion of the settlements and participate in boycotting settlement goods,” she said. “And there are others, who may not participate in boycotting, but are opposed to many of the discriminatory laws against Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.”

On July 18, 2017 an all-day committee hearing on the bill took place in a packed State House auditorium. Over five dozen people testified against the bill, among them an ACLU attorney as part of a distinguished panel of constitutional lawyers, as well as community leaders, educators, and religious leaders such as Rabbi Brian Walt, who talked about his personal witnessing of Israelis subjecting Palestinians to “systemic discrimination very similar to what I witnessed as a child in South Africa.” 

An eloquent written statement was submitted to the committee members signed by 108 ministers and other faith leaders from around Massachusetts.  It informed them that “many of us are part of denominations and national faith organizations which have already divested from companies that profit from the Israeli military occupation.  As a result, if this bill passed, our local organizations could be banned from receiving state contracts.”

Among those who testified about how the bill could affect them personally was a former IDF veteran who trained as a fighter pilot and is now a Massachusetts State Vendor. Omar Hecht told the legislators how he came to realize that he was helping the mechanism of oppression, and declared that “I will not stand idly by while millions suffer.”  He urged them to reject a bill that enables discrimination by silencing voices that speak out against it.

The State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee has until early February to decide what to do with the bill.

Junket a conflict of interest?  Not in Massachusetts.

With the anti-BDS bill reportedly JCRC’s number one legislative priority, the stakes for this year’s trip to Israel are particularly high.

Yes, Massachusetts does have a conflict of interest law, which prohibits legislators from accepting gifts of more than $50. 

But under Massachusetts Ethics Commission rules, elected officials can accept “reimbursement, waiver, or payment of travel expenses of substantial value, provided by any person other than a public agency or a lobbyist, if the elected public employee determines in writing prior to any travel …that acceptance of such reimbursement, waiver, or payment will serve a legitimate public purpose.”

Even though JCRC is registered with the state secretary as a lobbying organization, they appear to have no trouble making the case that the $4,000 – $6,000 in funds expended per participant are legitimate because no paid lobbyists are on the trip. 

In March 2016, Massachusetts Peace Action filed a formal complaint with the Ethics Commission against nine state senators–almost a quarter of the Senate–who travelled to Israel for 10 days on the JCRC’s tab in December 2015.  The 2015 trip was announced just three weeks after the Senate adopted a resolution, again written by JCRC, denouncing BDS.  The timing of the trip made it appear a reward for a favorable vote. 

The Ethics Commission brushed off the complaint, ruling that as long as lawmakers file disclosure statements including their determination “that the travel served a legitimate public purpose,” they can put conflict of interest concerns out of their minds. 

In the words of retired attorney Susan Nicholson who helped MAPA file its complaint, “It doesn’t make much sense to allow legislators to determine for themselves that their travel serves a legitimate public interest that outweighs any conflict of interest that may be involved.  If legislators can be trusted to make that determination, why bother with a conflict of interest law in the first place?”

The JCRC ‘study tour’ in the wake of Trump’s announcement

In the initial JCRC schedule, several days  are devoted to such tourist activities as visiting Masada, floating in the Dead Sea, visiting museums and touring Jerusalem, accompanied by their “tour educator,” Mike Hollander.  Hollander lives in Modi’in, which is 3 and a half miles from Modi’in Illit that straddles the green line on land taken from Bil’in and other Palestinian villages.  

Bil’in, where villagers have for 12 years held the weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the loss of their land depicted in the film Five Broken Cameras, is one of many Palestinian communities that have been brutalized by the Israeli Defense Force since Trump’s Jerusalem announcement.  Will any of this be brought to the delegation’s attention?

Under the heading “Road Signs of Understanding the Middle East,” the delegation is  also supposed to visit Ramallah.  But along with a walking tour of the Old City, this portion of the itinerary was almost certainly scrapped on “security grounds.”

Much of the itinerary is focused on Israel’s security.  The delegation is scheduled to drive north on the Israeli side of part of the security barrier (where the Wall has been reduced in height by mounded earth and is pleasantly decorated), make stops on the Lebanese and Syrian borders, visit a moshav on the edge of the Gaza Strip, and talk ethics with a brigadier general. Also scheduled is a visit to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, the Knesset, a bilingual school in Haifa and–as a gesture towards the Commonwealth’s business interests–a brief stop at the MassChallenge accelerator for start-ups.

Does such a trip–coming at a time when Palestinians and the world are denouncing Trump’s Jerusalem move and touring U.S. elected officials can readily be perceived as engaged in a victory lap–do anything to advance the legitimate public purposes of the Commonwealth?

“The trip is disturbing on many levels,” states Elsa Auerbach of JVP Boston.  “First, of course, no public official who is considering a piece of legislation should accept an all-expense paid trip from the very lobbying group that has written the legislation.  Second, the bill that legislators will be considering is blatantly deceptive in that it poses as ‘anti-discrimination’ legislation while in fact targeting those who oppose Israeli policies.  Adding another layer of deception, the organizers of the trip promote it as purely education, but have in fact curated an itinerary designed to promote a pro-Israel agenda.”

But unless the Ethics Commission changes its rules, expensive JCRC trips to Israel will be regarded by lawmakers as annual fringe benefits for years to come, and cynicism with the legislative process will grow.

Correction: This post originally said that Mike Hollander lives in the West Bank settlement of Modi’in. It has been corrected to say that he lives in Modi’in, which is 3 and a half miles from Modi’in Illit that straddles the green line on land taken from Bil’in and other Palestinian villages.  

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re: “Others [legislators] confessed they had no idea about Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights, and thought BDS was simply about hating Israel.”

Yeah, sure.

So will this make it 23 states that have taken similar actions?

Any senator that votes against Americans’ 1st Amendment free speech for Israel’s money is stabbing themselves in their soul. “War Profiteers and the Roots of the War on Terror”.

Nancy, As usual, excellent analysis. As my reason to be a strong supporter of the BDS movement, I do want to add what I think is worth reviewing – a compilation of the violations by Israel of the international human and civil rights of Palestinians (an excerpt from my testimony submitted to the Massachusetts SARO committee last July) starting with some history about THE OCCUPATION The occupation of the West Bank began in 1967. On… Read more »

Nancy, terrific article. The testimonies against the bill seem wonderful, persuasive, numerous, and let’s hope they have a sufficient impact. As to legislators who “didn’t know” blah-blah-blah, well I think a lot of Germans said much the same thing after WWII. No doubt there were some who actually didn’t know. But surely it can be impressed upon them that they (as legislators) have a duty not only to know but also not to allow themselves… Read more »

BDS program actually is in Israel’s own true best interests. Efforts to suppress it, and to suppress free speech in the US, are fully worthy of contempt.